How Caribbean Church members are staying vibrant and energized post Hurricanes Irma, Maria

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s recent Caribbean visit placed an exclamation point on a monumental year here for Latter-day Saints.

Decades from now, when Caribbean members study their history, they will surely find multiple chapters written on a period bookended loosely by the autumn of 2017 to the autumn of 2018.

Multiple events — some tragic, many joyful — forever changed the lives of members living across the region. Here are a few defining highlights:

On Sept. 15, 2017, just days after Hurricane Irma, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency visited the heavily damaged Caribbean island of St. Thomas before meeting with members in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Irma had largely spared Puerto Rico — but a second, far more destructive storm was beginning to brew in the Caribbean.

President Eyring offered counsel that the members would draw upon in the difficult year ahead: “The Lord watches over his people,” he said. “Everything will work out well if they will trust the Lord and be faithful.”

Five days later, Hurricane Maria reached landfall in Puerto Rico, exacting an almost unimaginable toll in both human life and property damage. Most Latter-day Saints and the fellow islanders went months without electricity and running water.

Meanwhile, missionaries serving in Puerto Rico were evacuated for several months.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson shakes hands with a missionary at a gathering with the Dominican Republ
Elder D. Todd Christofferson shakes hands with a missionary at a gathering with the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo West Mission on Nov. 10, 2018. | teddyJIMENEZ

On Oct. 28, 2017, members in Port-au-Prince, Haiti ­— who also know well the pain of natural disasters — rejoiced with the groundbreaking for that Caribbean nation’s first temple.On June 1, 2018, congregations across the Caribbean Area celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. Many here are of African descent and President Spencer W. Kimball’s revelation would open the Church in full across the Caribbean.On Sept. 1, 2018, President Russell M. Nelson and Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met with hundreds of missionaries and members in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

A day later, the visiting Brethren worshipped with thousands of Latter-day Saints in San Juan’s Colieso de Puerto Rico.

“The best days of your life are ahead of you and for your loved ones,” promised President Nelson.

On Oct. 7, 2018, President Nelson announced plans to build 12 new temples — including the future San Juan Puerto Rico Temple, the island’s first.

Such defining events are opening valuable “windows of opportunity” for the Caribbean members, particularly in Puerto Rico, observed Elder Christofferson.

The best days of your life are ahead.

“The people are more spiritually sensitive because of what they have endured. People have turned to the Lord.”

The Apostle’s Nov. 10-18 trip included gatherings with missionaries, young married couples, local priesthood leaders and a seminar with all the mission presidents and their companions serving in the Caribbean Area. He also spoke at a business ethics conference and at a religious freedom conference in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, respectively.

For the Caribbean members, hosting Elder Christofferson just weeks after President Nelson and Elder Renlund’s visit was a sweet blessing.

“Elder Christofferson’s visit helped us to deepen our conversion and increase our faith in Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ,” said Elder Walter F. Gonzalez, who presides over the Caribbean Area.

Future temples in Haiti and Puerto Rico, he added, have injected new energy across the region.

“During a special stake conference in Puerto Rico, Elder Christofferson said that we must seize the momentum that God has given us,” he said. “That momentum has a beginning and an end. We must use it to assist in the gathering of the House of Israel on both sides of the veil while helping to prepare for the Second Coming of the Savior.”

A vibrant generation

Elder Christofferson returned from the Caribbean uplifted by the area’s youth. God’s spirit fills them with light and hope.

“There is a real vibrancy in the Church whenever we place focus on the rising generation,” he said. “It seems to make everything better, for both the older and younger members.”

A young elder asks Elder D. Todd Christofferson questions during a gathering of the Dominican Republ
A young elder asks Elder D. Todd Christofferson questions during a gathering of the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo West Mission on Nov. 10, 2018. | SANDOVAL

In his Nov. 17 meeting for young married couples in Puerto Rico, he delivered a central message: “You can make a real contribution — you don’t have to wait until you are older to make a difference in the Lord’s cause.”

Youth and young adults in the Caribbean and beyond, he added, must also play a central role for good in the home.

“That’s always been true, but it seems more so now,” he said. “Agencies of support that we took for granted have largely withdrawn their support. In schools and other community organizations, there is more and more pressure to be ‘value free’ and not sustain moral teachings that we try to communicate in the Church and at home.

“We’re a little more on our own.”

Hope for Puerto Rico

Elder Christofferson was also inspired by the resiliency of the Puerto Rican members and their fellow islanders.

The two powerful hurricanes staggered the members. “But they have bounced back,” he said. Homes and roads have been rebuilt. And Latter-day Saints have followed their leaders. They are enduring and moving on.

Now the Puerto Rican Saints are approaching another key moment in their lives: a temple on their native soil.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson makes a new friend at a conference of the Santo Domingo Dominican Repub
Elder D. Todd Christofferson makes a new friend at a conference of the Santo Domingo Dominican Republic Geronimo Stake on Nov. 11, 2018.

During his time to San Juan, Elder Christofferson counseled them to follow the Lord’s commands by preparing now to offer themselves at the future temple with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

“Think about what you can bring on the day of the dedication — a better, holier you,” he said. “Look at what is in your life that is unworthy and can be eliminated. Consider your Christ-like attributes that can be expanded and improved.

“Use the time between now and then so that when you walk through that door that says ‘Holiness to the Lord’ you are a holier person than you are today.”

Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic remains a power for the Church in the Caribbean. The economy there is vibrant “and there is strength in all generations,” he said.

An undeniable energy

It's been four decades since the priesthood revelation has defined the Church in the Caribbean Area. All members now have full access to the blessings of the temple and priesthood authority. Dedicated temples in Haiti and Puerto Rico will soon join the area’s first temple in Santo Domingo.

And missionary work — particularly in Haiti and in Puerto Rico (where the missionaries have returned) — continues to grow.

“The area,” said Elder Christofferson, “is energized.”

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